Church: The 21st Century Challenge

Sermon by Pastor Bill Chadwick | October 20, 2019

1 Corinthians 12:12-17, 27

One Body with Many Members
12 For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. 14 Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. 15 If the foot would say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 16 And if the ear would say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? … 27 Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.

I’d like us to think about “church” this morning.

How many of you have been affiliated with a church all your lives?

How many only part of your life?

What other denominations?

What is the definition of church? Ekklesia in Greek. meaning those gathered together for worship. Worship of God as made known in Jesus.

What kind of new member class have you been a part of? A couple of sessions? Four classes? I’ve been told that in the early church Lent was 40 days of instruction before an Easter baptism. Before an adult would join the Church. The leaders of the early church wanted people to know what they were getting themselves into by following Jesus, since so many of them were likely to be martyred for their faith. To say yes to Jesus often meant to say yes to death. Still today millions of followers of Jesus around the world face persecution—or even death—for following Jesus.

Joining a church is not the same as joining the Lions Club or Kiwanis or AAUW. It is a demand for ultimate allegiance. When we join a Presbyterian Church at least, we declare that Jesus is our Lord and Savior. Lord: boss of our lives. Ahead of country, even ahead of family, if push comes to shove, which thankfully it usually doesn’t. It’s not news to observe that the American Protestant Church is vastly different today than it was 42 years ago when I was ordained. Churches were full. Sunday Schools were bursting. Kids might leave after confirmation or graduation, but perhaps 80% returned…when? Baptism of first kid. Today that figure is closer to 8% returning to the Church.

To most young people today, churches seem irrelevant at best, and negative at worst. Irrelevant or negative. Irrelevant because worship is so often boring: the preaching is often slapdash and uninspired, the music leaves a lot to be desired in one of two directions—in traditional congregations almost all the hymns were written 150 years ago by white European or Euro-American men; on the other hand, in most of the evangelical churches the praise music is insipid and intellectually insulting); so bad preaching, bad music, and often, bad coffee, lead to an attitude of “Who cares?” Young people also find the church irrelevant because so many churches say nothing about the environment, economic inequality, gun safety, racism, healthcare and the other issues important to young people today.

But worse than irrelevant, churches come across as negative to young people when the churches focus on condemnation, condemnation of gay people or Muslims, or any other group…and then, of course, there is the widespread clergy abuse in both Catholic and Protestant churches…Enough to turn anybody off.

The comic John Fugelsang has observed: “I think of Jesus as being sort of like Elvis. Love the man. The fan club creeps me out.” While I’m quoting Fugelsang, here’s another beautiful observation of his:

Another interesting quote from Fugelsang:
Jesus was a radical nonviolent revolutionary who hung around with lepers, hookers and crooks; wasn’t American and never spoke English; was anti-wealth, anti-death penalty, anti-public prayer (Matt. 6:5); but was never anti-gay, never mentioned abortion or birth control, never called the poor lazy, never justified torture, never fought for tax cuts for the wealthiest Nazarenes, never asked a leper for a copay; and was a long-haired brown-skinned homeless community-organizing anti-slut shaming Middle Eastern Jew.

Okay, so what I said about much of the contemporary Church is the bad news.
What’s the good news?

Despite all of the above, the Church is not going away. The Church is not going away because it is the Church of Jesus Christ. And the world needs Jesus as much today as it ever has.

Let’s put things in context. A little history. What was going on 500 years ago? The Protestant Reformation in Europe. About every 500 years the Church goes through a radical transformation. Clearly, we are in a Reformation time now. The Church of Jesus Christ is not going away. But the Church as we have known it certainly is going away.

In order to move forward, let’s take a look backward, not 500 years, but a little over 100 years. What is the church supposed to be about? What is the Presbyterian Church supposed to be about?

In 1910 the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church adopted a series of core tenets, which they called The Great Ends of the Church. In the following century, these have been altered very little. They have stood the test of time. They are:
(1) the proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind;
(2) the shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God;
(3) the maintenance of divine worship;
(4) the preservation of the truth;
(5) the promotion of social righteousness;
(6) the exhibition of the kingdom of heaven to the world.

  1. Proclamation of the gospel…You want to know what God is like. Look to Jesus. God loves you unconditionally.
  2. Fellowship. We’re pretty good about that
  3. Worship. Yep.
  4. Preservation of the truth. That’s potentially a large and controversial area. Let’s say the basics would be these: Creation is a gift of God and is entrusted to our care. We are created in the image of God. God loves us unconditionally. Jesus reveals to humankind the very heart of God. We in the Church are to be the hands and feet and mouth of Jesus to the world today. Can we agree that those things are the Truth of God?
  5. The promotion of social righteousness. All people are God’s children and should be treated justly. Micah 6:8. “What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, act mercifully, and walk humbly with your God?”
  6. Exhibition of the kingdom of heaven to the world. When the world looks at us in the Church, they should see what heaven will look like, in how we treat each other and the things we are about.

Tall order. It demands our all. Let me finish with a story.

How many of you have heard of Tony Campolo? He’s a retired sociologist and a non-retired Baptist preacher, and perhaps the most engaging speaker I’ve ever heard. I’ve had that opportunity several times. Here’s one of his memorable stories (also found in his book, The Kingdom of God is a Party).

Tony had been invited to speak in Hawaii. He’s from Philadelphia, so because of jet lag, the first night he woke up at 3 AM. Decided to try to find some breakfast. Up a side street he found a little place that was still open. He went in, took a seat on one of the stools at the counter, and waited to be served. This was one of those sleazy places that richly deserves the name, “greasy spoon.” He did not want to even touch the menu. But it was the only place open. The guy behind the counter came over and asked, “What d’ya want?”

Tony figured coffee and a donut would be safe.

As he sat there munching on his donut and sipping his coffee at 3:30 in the morning, the door of the diner suddenly swung open and, to his discomfort, in marched eight or nine provocative and boisterous women, clearly ladies of the evening.

It was a small place, and they sat down at the counter on either side of Tony. Their talk was loud and crude. He felt completely out of place and was just about to make his getaway when he overheard the woman beside him say, “Tomorrow’s my birthday. I’m going to be 39.”

Her “friend” responded in a nasty tone, “So what? What do you want from me? A birthday party? What do you want? Ya want me to get you a cake and sing ‘Happy Birthday’?”

“Come on,” said the woman sitting next to him. “Why do you have to be so mean? I was just telling you, that’s all. Why do you have to put me down? I was just telling you it was my birthday. I don’t want anything from you. I mean, why should you give me a birthday party? I’ve never had a birthday party in my whole life. Why should I have one now?”

Tony was flabbergasted by that. And his heart went out to her. Never had a birthday party in her life. After the women left, Tony asked the guy behind the counter, “Do these women come in here every night?”

“Yeah!” he answered. “Like clockwork, 3:30.”

“The one right next to me, does she come here every night?”

“Yeah!” he said. “That’s Agnes. Yeah, she comes in here every night. Why d’ya wanta know?”

“Because I heard her say that tomorrow is her birthday. And she said she’s never had a birthday party in her entire life. What do you say you and I do something about that? What do you think about us throwing a birthday party for her—right here—tomorrow night?”

A smile slowly crossed his chubby cheeks, and he answered with delight, “That’s great! I like it! That’s a terrific idea!” Calling to his wife, who did the cooking in the back room, he shouted, “Hey! Come out here! This guy’s got a great idea. Tomorrow’s Agnes’s birthday and she said tonight that she’s never had a birthday party in her life. This guy wants us to go in with him and throw a birthday party for her—right here—tomorrow night!”

His wife said, “That’s wonderful! You know, Agnes is one of those people who is really nice and kind, and nobody does anything nice and kind for her.”

“Look,” Tony told them, “if it’s okay with you, I’ll get back here tomorrow morning about 2:30 and decorate the place. I’ll even get a birthday cake!”

“No way,” said Harry (that was his name, of course). “The birthday cake’s my thing. I’ll make the cake.”

At 2:30 the next morning, Tony was back at the diner. He had picked up some crepe paper decorations at the store and had made a sign out of big pieces of cardboard that read, “Happy Birthday, Agnes!” He and the owners decorated the diner from one end to the other. They had that diner looking good. Harry’s wife had spread the word out on the street, and by 3:15 every prostitute in Honolulu was in the place. Tony said, “It was wall-to-wall prostitutes…and me!”

At 3:30 on the dot, the door of the diner swung open, and in came Agnes and her friend. Everybody screamed, “Happy birthday!”

Tony said, “Never have I seen a person so flabbergasted, so stunned, so shaken. Her mouth fell open. Her legs seemed to buckle a bit. Her friend grabbed her arm to steady her and led her to sit on one of the stools along the counter, as they all sang “Happy Birthday”‘ to her. As they came to the end of their singing with “Happy birthday, dear Agnes, happy birthday to you,” tears were streaming down her face. Then, when Harry brought out the birthday cake with all the candles on it, Agnes just lost it and openly cried.

Harry gruffly mumbled, “Blow out the candles, Agnes! Come on! Blow out the candles! If you don’t blow out the candles, I’m gonna hafta blow out the candles.” And, after an endless few seconds, he did. Then he handed her a knife and told her, “Cut the cake, Agnes. We all want some cake.”

Agnes looked down at the cake. Then without taking her eyes off it, she slowly and softly said, “Look, Harry, is it all right with you if I…I mean is it okay if I kind of…what I want to ask you is…is it O.K. if I keep the cake a little while? I mean, is it all right if we don’t eat it right away?”

Harry shrugged and answered, “Sure! It’s O.K. If you want to keep the cake, keep the cake. It’s your cake. Take it home, if you want to.”

“Can I?” she asked. Then, looking at Tony, she said, “I live just down the street a couple of doors. I want to take the cake home, okay? I’ll be right back. Honest!”

She got off the stool, picked up the cake, and carrying it like it was the Holy Grail, walked slowly toward the door.

When the door closed, there was an awkward silence in the place. The guest of honor had left. Not knowing what else to do, Tony broke the silence by saying, “What do you say we pray?” And he bowed his head and he prayed for Agnes. He prayed for her salvation, prayed that her life would be changed, and that God would be good to her.

When Tony had finished, Harry leaned over the counter and growled, “Hey! You never told me you was a preacher… What kind of church do you belong to, anyway?”

In one of those moments when just the right words came, Tony answered, “I belong to the kind of church that throws birthday parties for prostitutes at 3:30 in the morning.”

Harry’s eyes narrowed; he slowly shook his head, “No you don’t. There ain’t no church like that. If there was, I’d join it. Yep, I’d join a church like that!”

Well, my friends, that’s the kind of church that Jesus came to create! And I submit that that’s the kind of Church the Holy Spirit is calling us to create here in the 21 st century. The kind of Church that throws birthday parties for prostitutes at 3:30 in the morning.


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